Over the last century, Europeans have been living longer, healthier lives with big advances in medical treatments, social conditions and in our understanding about health in general.
However, cancer continues to wreck lives, impact families and put major pressure on our health and social systems and economies. It is the number one cause of death among Europeans under 65.
European data suggests that only half of us will go through life without developing cancer at some point.
What else can the data tell us?
Here are five insights that the most recent estimates on the European Cancer Information System give us about the state of cancer in Europe today, how it might develop in the future, and what we can do to beat this disease.
1. Europeans are particularly hard hit by cancer
According to the estimates, there were about four million new cancer cases in Europe in 2020. Sadly, about 1.9 million people are estimated to have died from cancer in Europe that year. The numbers estimated for 2018 were similar.
In the global context, Europeans are disproportionately affected by cancer. While Europeans make up only one tenth of the world population, about 25% of all annual cancer cases occur in Europe. This is devastating for families and friends affected and has a big impact on countries’ overburdened health systems, showing the urgency of taking action.
Europe has a plan to beat cancer by tackling the entire disease pathway, with actions on prevention; early detection; diagnosis and treatment; and quality of life for cancer patients and survivors.
2. Cancer is having a big impact on our children too
Almost 16,000 children are estimated to have been diagnosed with cancer in Europe in 2020. One in every 300 children born that year is likely to develop cancer by the age of 19.
Despite these numbers, childhood cancers are still rare and collaboration is crucial to properly analyse and treat them. This means that pooling data from across countries and regions in Europe can lead to big improvements in diagnosis, treatment and care by making it much easier to analyse and compare the data, and share good practices.
Launched last month, the European ‘childhood incidence data’ section of the European Cancer Information System brings that data together from across Europe, so that researchers, policymakers, patients, citizens and stakeholders in Member States can better monitor trends and outcomes for different diagnostic groups of childhood cancer.
3. Some parts of Europe are more heavily affected than others
The ECIS statistics show a big variation in the estimated number of people being diagnosed with different types of cancer across Europe’s countries and regions.
For example, breast cancer – the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women in the EU – appears much more frequently in some places than others. Depending on where you are in Europe, it can range from impacting 71 out of 100,000 people, to 194 per 100,000.
The range of mortality rates also vary more widely: from 20.6 per 100,000 people to 50.9 per 100,000.
This range poses both challenges and opportunities for countries in Europe. For those countries and regions with low case numbers, it is imperative to have access to a wider data pool to be able to properly make analyses. Similarly, sharing good practices can lead to stronger diagnosis, treatment and care outcomes. This is where the Knowledge Centre on Cancer comes in, by providing access to that data and a platform for everyone involved in the fight against cancer to share their knowledge and experiences.
A major aim of Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan is to address the significant differences between and within Member States and between socioeconomic population groups in access to prevention and care.
4. The number of cancer patients looks set to increase in the future
We know that cancer disproportionately affects older people. 60% of the estimated new diagnoses and 73% of estimated deaths in 2020 occurred in persons aged 65 or older.
JRC experts are currently working with the cancer estimates and projections on possible demographic futures for Europe, to explore how the numbers of diagnoses and people dying from cancer might evolve in the coming decades.
So far, they estimate that, as Europe’s population gets older, the number of people being diagnosed with cancer could increase by up to 18% in 2040. They also find big differences in the estimated increases in different countries: ranging from a 2% increase to a 65.3% increase in new cancer cases.
These initial findings are being further explored and will soon be published on the European Cancer Information System.
5. Healthier lifestyles can have a huge impact
Prevention is better than cure. It is estimated that almost 40% of cancers are preventable: meaning that they are strongly linked to lifestyle rather than only to inherited genes.
For example, colorectal cancer is one of the most common cancer types in Europe and a leading cause of cancer-related deaths. While people with a family history of colorectal cancer are at higher risk, risks can be greatly reduced for everyone by adopting healthy habits. This includes:
- Having a healthy diet, such as: eating plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains; limiting foods high in salt, sugar or fat and avoid sugary drinks; avoiding processed meat and limiting red meat;
- Maintaining a healthy weight;
- Exercising regularly;
- Not smoking;
- Limiting the amount of alcohol you drink.
We need more action on health promotion and disease prevention. If more people take up these healthy lifestyle choices, this could have a big impact on the number of people developing cancer each year. The JRC runs the Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Knowledge Gateway, which gives policymakers and the public access to reliable independent evidence on promoting health and wellbeing.
The European Cancer Information System is one part of the Knowledge Centre on Cancer, a flagship initiative of Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan. With a budget of €4 billion the Plan addresses cancer in an integrated, health-in-all-policies and multi-stakeholder approach.
By supporting the uptake of accurate and up-to-date knowledge about cancer, the Knowledge Centre also contributes to the Horizon Europe Mission on Cancer to achieve by 2030, more than 3 million lives saved, living longer and better.
The JRC works with the European Network of Cancer Registries, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), EUROCARE and other international institutions and projects to provide the latest information on indicators that quantify cancer burden across Europe.
Indicators include annual cancer estimates covering forty countries, including all EU Member States. The aim is to support research and public health decision-making, as well as being an information source for European citizens.
- Publication date
- 13 January 2022